Decarbonising challenges for the higher education estate – 2030 and beyond

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  • Decarbonising challenges for the higher education estate – 2030 and beyond
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Stephen Scott


Stephen Scott


Capability , Future Thinking
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Just over four years ago the UK became the first major economy in the world to legislate reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The clock is ticking.

We are all fully aware of the impact the built environment has on sustainability measures with buildings, on their own, accounting for 39% of annual global greenhouse emissions (World Green Building Council).

Set against this backdrop, the higher education sector has always been keen to lean in to tackle sustainability issues, with many institutions setting ambitious goals to reach net zero emissions by 2030 well ahead of UK deadlines. With often complex, large, resource heavy estates and constrained budgets there are some real challenges for universities in transitioning to a lower carbon estate to meet the commitments enshrined in legislation.

But with these challenges come the real solutions that don’t just tackle decarbonisation. 2030 is not far off and retrofit and refurbishment programmes clearly have a key role to play in reaching these goals. But by applying a holistic lens to the decarbonisation agenda there is an opportunity to create a future fit estate as well as reaching net zero. 

Working with clients, we always advocate looking at the wider context and overarching long-term ambitions. For example, what is the outlook for student numbers and their demographic? Which courses are growing and what are their requirements for facilities? Is there going to be an increasing requirement for blended learning and hybrid working? Looking at the estate holistically and setting long term goals, ensures priorities are set and capital investment is focused on the areas where it has the most impact. 

Creating a roadmap is vital but can often seem overwhelming with an older estate with a multitude of facilities spread across different locations. Breaking it down and looking at the following strategic considerations is a useful way to both navigate the way into managing sustainability challenges and building a long-term plan for a future fit estate.

Be data driven

The multi-faceted role of universities makes them data rich environments. However, for many organisations, information on the underlying condition of their buildings from energy efficiency to operational costs may not be robust or can have significant gaps of missing data. Commissioning a Six Facet or condition survey to fill these gaps or in some cases, to harvest data from across the estate, establishes the all-important baseline. It removes the temptation to rely on anecdotal evidence about how effective or well used a space is. Having a strong data set not only means you can better understand your estate usage and operational performance, but it also improves decision making and governance. Being data-driven enables the management team to evaluate the strength and validity of the assets and identify those that are worth long-term investment and those that require disposal.

Be holistic and future fit

Whilst robust data sets the baseline, options around tackling decarbonisation need to be viewed as part of the wider academic and estate ambitions of the organisation to ensure focus is put on the programmes that can make the most impact. 

Having sustainability aims embedded into the wider brief will help keep the estate future fit for the long term rather than aiming for short term wins. Considering the current and future role of the campus can unlock opportunities. For example, the increase of hybrid working, blended working, smaller group learnings etc may allow for optimising or consolidating space which leads to improved efficiency of assets.

Think fabric first

With any building to ensure that new technology solutions provide optimum benefits it is fundamental to have a fabric first approach. There have been major strides in innovation and technology around energy efficiency solutions to heat and ventilate our buildings particularly as we continue to deal with escalating energy costs. However, these will only achieve their goals if the basic fabric of a building is first addressed and the more mundane issues of replacing windows or upgrading insulation are first dealt with. Without a fabric first approach, it’s easy to just heat the atmosphere as energy leaks through an inefficient building. With many universities having facilities with legacy and heritage issues we know this can be highly sensitive and a major consideration as part of any programme. Holistic reporting that considers, capital and life cycle costing, whole life carbon and wider ESG goals can help here to build a robust business case for investment needed to create long term solutions.

The pressure to meet decarbonisation goals is only going to intensify but embedding these targets into a holistic estate strategy will enable wider-benefits and better outcomes for 2030 and beyond.

RLB offers a range of sustainability advisory services, based on fostering a culture of continuous improvement. Our approach covers all aspects of the sustainability agenda – from carbon reduction, energy management, wellbeing and estate rationalisation, through to ethical, legislative and economic pressures. For more information, please contact our Head of Sustainability, Heather Evans on